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26 March 2014

PMQs review: Miliband’s price freeze saves him – but he needs a new hit

To settle his party's nerves, the Labour leader needs another trump card.

By George Eaton

After his worst week as Labour leader since last summer, Ed Miliband returned to a scene of past glories at today’s PMQs: his energy price freeze. SSE’s announcement this morning that bills will be frozen until 2016 give him the peg he needed. “Would we be right to assume that the PM believes that this price freeze is unworkable, impossible to implement and probably a communist plot?” was his pitch-perfect opener. Cameron replied that it was only because of the government’s reduction in green levies that the company had been able to act (as SSE said in its statement). Labour can reasonably argue that the coalition would never have taken this action had it not been for Miliband’s campaign, but unlike when the policy was first announced, he can at least point to government support for billpayers.

Yet despite the best week for the Tories for months, Cameron appeared oddly rattled by Miliband’s line of attack. As he knows, while the government’s cuts to green levies have reduced most bills by around £50, they are still rising. So long as this remains the case, Labour’s price freeze will retain its potency. His attempt, midway through the session, to change the subject to the Budget and the economy showed that he is still much happier fighting on this territory than on living standards (with Miliband, in Reagan mode, warning that people will be worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010).

“I’ll tell him what’s weak: weak is not having an economic policy, weak is not responding to the Budget,” he raged. In response, Miliband quipped, “Not for the first time, calm down, dear, calm down”, before seguing into a terrible bingo joke: “Or should I say for the benefit of the Chancellor, eyes down, dear?” It was a line that Cameron trumped with a genuine zinger later when he declared that bingo was “the only time he gets near Number 10”.

But while Miliband’s energy price freeze shielded him today, it served as a reminder that he hasn’t enjoyed a similar hit since. If he is to settle Labour nerves, he’ll soon need to unveil his “radical offer” on tuition fees and much else.

The other notable moment in the session came when Cameron confirmed that the government had been unable to reach agreement on amending the Hunting Act to allow more than two dogs to be used to flush out a fox (owing to Lib Dem opposition). But while Tory backbenchers will be dismayed, an interminable row over foxhunting is one “barnacle” (to borrow Lynton Crosby’s phrase) that the PM can do without. Far better to keep banging on about the Budget.

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